Category Archives: Life

When in Chiang Mai: Exploring the city

Chiang Mai is located in the north of Thailand, near the borders of Laos and Myanmar. With far less wild Australian tourists than the more southern beachy parts, Chiang Mai was a perfect location for a Culinary Adventure.

Wat Chiang Man | When in Chiang Mai: Exploring the city | lizniland.com

Full of temples – called a “wat” in Thai – Chiang Mai is a fairly conservative city so you’ll need to have your shoulders and knees covered if you wish to venture inside a temple. If you forget to pack your emergency sarong, simply walking around these opulent buildings is worth it – that’s mostly all we did!

Temples everywhere | When in Chiang Mai: Exploring the city | lizniland.com

Temples really are everywhere so try not to peak too early – you don’t want wat fatigue! While Wat Chiang Man (that first photo) was a really impressive structure with stunning grounds, a temple we stumbled across in the Old City was by far the most interesting. The temple itself wasn’t much on its own but it was a beehive of activity with orange-robed monks everywhere completing set up for Yi Peng Lantern Festival celebrations.

Buddhist monks at work | When in Chiang Mai: Exploring the city | lizniland.com

Tree filled with lanterns | When in Chiang Mai: Exploring the city | lizniland.com

Something I found incredibly fascinating in Chiang Mai was the amount of advertising. Juxtaposed against the poorer areas, the gold-flecked temples and cold stained cement buildings, giant billboards looked completely out of place.

When in Chiang Mai: Exploring the city | lizniland.com

In addition to those ads, utes like the one in the top right picture above, drive around blaring advertisements through speakers – I’d hate to be the driver! I think I’d prefer to have a tuk tuk!

Waiting tuk tuk driver| When in Chiang Mai: Exploring the city | lizniland.com

We didn’t find out a whole lot about the history of Chiang Mai – too busy learning how to ride elephants & how to cook authentic Thai food! It’s obvious though when you look around, especially in the Old City, how long this place has been around for.

The old city moat | When in Chiang Mai: Exploring the city | lizniland.com

From what my good friend Wikipedia told me, Chiang Mai was founded in 1296. The capital of its region at the time, it was prone to attacks by neighbouring countries which triggered the creation of huge city walls and a moat. While the moat looks like it would be lucky to stop even a puppy these days, it makes a scenic addition to the city.

The old city walls | When in Chiang Mai: Exploring the city | lizniland.com

There’s a lot of tourist-y things to do in Thailand but I’m glad we got to spend some quality time walking around and seeing how people live everyday. It’s always one of my favourite things to do in a new place.

 

What’s the most fascinating, mind-opening thing you’ve seen on a holiday?

When in Chiang Mai: Cooking classes

There was no way a Culinary Adventure to Chiang Mai with Paleo Nick and Steph from Stupid Easy Paleo was going to go down without a cooking class or two! We ate plenty of delights while we were in Thailand but honestly, the most delicious things I enjoyed were those we made for ourselves during these cooking schools. (Commence the tooting of our own horns!)

Cooking School #1: Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School

Situated a little way out of town, the Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School is a very snazzy purpose-built treehouse with picturesque semi-rural surrounds. With access to all the bells and whistles (or utensils and gas burners, as the case was) we learnt how to make a whole menu of delicious Thai dishes and even got a cookbook to recreate the magic at home.

Chef Steph | When in Chiang Mai: Cooking classes | lizniland.com

While the food was all super tasty, this class certainly wasn’t paleo – Nick’s face at the mention of soybean oil in a hot wok has akin to that of a small child after a fall, in that quiet moment of realisation before they let out the epic scream. There was soy sauce, seed oils, refined sugar and rice products galore. I thought that Thai food wouldn’t be too far from paleo but we quickly came to the conclusion that, just like back home, unless you make it yourself, it’s pretty hard to know exactly what’s in your meal.

Fried noodles | When in Chiang Mai: Cooking classes | lizniland.com

Case in point was this fried noodle dish… but just quietly, it was one of my favourites! It’s not something I can see myself trying to recreate at home so it was total guilt-free vacation food. I’m not much of a pizza and cakes kind of girl – give me a random interesting dish like this that’s totally different to my everyday eats & I’m there.

This involved frying a little pile of sauced-up rice noodles until they started to crisp up together into a pattie. It was then set aside while the pork and vegetable mixture hit the wok. See, somehow I don’t think this one will be the same if I attempt to paleofy it with zucchini noodles!

Coconut milk soup & red curry fish | When in Chiang Mai: Cooking classes | lizniland.com

The closest-to-paleo dishes at this school were the Chicken in Coconut Milk Soup, the Red Curry with Fish and the Papaya Salad. By switching to coconut oil and using a good clean curry paste, the curry has already found its way into my kitchen and I’m keen to try out the soup soon too. I may just have to post up my recreation!

One of the fun things about this cooking school was learning how to prepare ingredients in the Thai way. We learnt all the ways to slice green onion and how to cut a chilli depending on your heat-preference, as well as some kitschy decorative skills. In the vegetable dish above the curry, you’ll be able to see my green onion art and possibly make out the star I carved atop my mushroom, while below, note my attempt of a tomato rose. I haven’t cracked these out on my home dinners yet but I might just have to at least get a tomato flower into a salad sometime soon!

Papaya salad - Som tam | When in Chiang Mai: Cooking classes | lizniland.com

Originally, we were going to have 2 days out at this cooking school but, while we learnt a lot about how the flavours of Thai food work and what the foundation ingredients are, we weren’t so fussed on learning how to make more food we’d have to paleofy so much to cook at home. Enter the Inpoo Food Shop.

Cooking School #2: Stupid Easy Paleo Nick Cooking Class

Across the road from our accommodation was a small restaurant named Inpoo Food Shop. Fronted by a roadside kitchen (wo)manned by Som with occasional assistance from her tuk-tuk driving significant other Payut, Inpoo was a deliciously easy favourite with the ninjas. Nick befriended the couple on day 1 and by the time we needed a second day of cooking school, Som graciously let us take over her restaurant.

Som's pad thai | When in Chiang Mai: Cooking classes | lizniland.com

We broke up into small teams to tackle a dish from a menu Nick created. I joined with Jose and Jen to become the Friendship Curry team. Using what we’d learnt at the first cooking school but applying paleo principles, we put together a list of ingredients and hit the markets to shop for what we needed.

Som's curry paste | When in Chiang Mai: Cooking classes | lizniland.com

Lucky for us, Som made us a fresh batch of curry paste to use (as well as a plate of her pad thai for us to taste-test!) so we didn’t need much more than some eggs, pork, coconut milk and a couple of fresh vegetables.

Our friendship curry | When in Chiang Mai: Cooking classes | lizniland.com

And didn’t it turn out pretty! To boost the protein, Jen had the brilliant idea of decorating the top of the curry with boiled eggs. I was sceptical at first but I loved the finished product – both the flavour and the texture of the eggs really complemented the spicy curry. I’m keen to try doing this in my own kitchen now too.

Friendship curry team | When in Chiang Mai: Cooking classes | lizniland.com

Our team was pretty special – we were the only group with each person from a different country! I’m Australian, Jen is from Malaysia and Jose resides in the U.S. We thought that was totally appropriate for a team taking on a Friendship Curry.

Paleo chicken satay skewers & laarb | When in Chiang Mai: Cooking classes | lizniland.com

It wasn’t all about the Friendship Curry though – the other dishes that made the final feast were chicken satay skewers, laarb with cabbage leaves for scooping and wrapping, an epic fruit salad served up on a banana leaf and a spicy papaya salad. We invited Som & Payut to dig in first and then we all finally got to sample each others dishes. The feast even lured in some hungry Canadian backpackers so they piled up a plate too.

Sharing our feast | When in Chiang Mai: Cooking classes | lizniland.com

It was such a fun challenge at the Inpoo but I think we really needed the first day’s cooking school to be able to know what we were doing once we were on our own. Even just knowing what all the different vegetables were at the markets would have been difficult without a bit of education. Being able to take on the Inpoo kitchen with Som really solidified the skills and techniques we learned at school #1. Even though it was a bit of an unplanned change, I thought our whole cooking class experience was great fun and totally beneficial for my expanding my cheffing abilities.

Have you seen my other posts about Thailand? So far I’ve posted about why I went to Chiang Mai, the amazing Chiang Mai lantern festival and the elephant park and ziplining adventure. It was a great trip!

When in Chiang Mai: Elephants & Ziplining

As part of my Chiang Mai adventure with Paleo Nick, Steph from Stupid Easy Paleo and a whole gang of culinary ninjas, I had the opportunity to not only meet the gentlest giants of the animal world, but also to fly through the trees suspended by little more than unwavering faith in steel.

Bonding with my elephant at Baanchang Elephant Park | When in Chiang Mai: Elephants & Ziplining | lizniland.com

For an incredible elephant encounter, we did the 1-day Mahout training program at Baanchang Elephant Park. The park is a not-for-profit organisation all about elephant rescue and rehabilitation and is situated in the pretty jungle-y hills a fair way outside downtown Chiang Mai.

Elephant kisses at Baanchang Park | When in Chiang Mai: Elephants & Ziplining | lizniland.com

While I was warned by friends back home not to wear short shorts (apparently touching a hairy elephant with one’s upper thigh is not so pleasant) we got to wear these darling 100% polyester suits instead (which I swear just about hit melting point in full sun).

All jokes aside though, this was a great experience which went above and beyond what I was expecting. Once we’d learned the commands and gestures to work with the elephant (including what to do if it bolted. Tip: hold on tight!) we went for a bareback jaunt around the expansive park. Each elephant’s real mahout (they stay together for life!) was never far behind us and my elephant’s mahout even made me this delightful hat out of a teak leaf while we meandered along.

Teak leaf hat at Baanchang Park | When in Chiang Mai: Elephants & Ziplining | lizniland.com

Our other exposure to the rainforests of Chiang Mai came in the form of a trip out to the Flight of the Gibbon ziplining park. Similarly to the elephant park, it’s quite a way out of town and – warning to anyone with motion sickness – is located at the top of a very windy road. Here we are (looking like the new cast of Survivor!) hanging out on a made-for-group-photos ledge over a waterfall in the wilderness surrounding the park.

Thailand Culinary Adventure team 2014 | When in Chiang Mai: Elephants & Ziplining | lizniland.com

After we strapped into our harnesses and helmets, it was time to take on the course of 33 platforms, 18 ziplines and 3 Indiana Jones-inspired bridges. The idea of putting all your trust in a steel hook certainly had some of the team quaking in their sneakers but once we’d nailed the first few, it was an exhilarating way to experience the tranquil (other than the occasional squeal or Tarzan bellow!) surrounds.

Just hanging out | When in Chiang Mai: Elephants & Ziplining | lizniland.com

I’m sure some, probably my mother included, may be a little suss on the safety and quality of something like this but I didn’t feel unsafe at any point. Our “Sky Rangers” looked after everyone and were great at supporting even the most fearful ninjas to step outside their comfort zone enough to make it a memorable challenge (rather than a memory to be repressed!)

Mick on the staircase | When in Chiang Mai: Elephants & Ziplining | lizniland.com

Me hanging out with Steph | When in Chiang Mai: Elephants & Ziplining | lizniland.com

The bloke on the left in the shot below was one of our Sky Rangers, Woody. He works at the park 6 days a week, lives onsite and told us that other than cooking, he has no real hobbies beyond zipping around the rainforest. It doesn’t get much closer to lives-and-breathes-the-job dedication than that!

Flight of the Gibbon - Sky Ranger Woody | When in Chiang Mai: Elephants & Ziplining | lizniland.com

Other than the photo of me with the teak leaf hat & the one where I’m copping a big neck smooch from a little elephant, photographer extraordinaire Anderson York captured these moments. The above shot was even taken while he was flying along, mid-zipline!

Have you ever got up close & personal with an elephant? They’re such incredible creatures!

When in Chiang Mai: Yi Peng Lantern Festival

If spending a week in Thailand’s Chiang Mai with Paleo Nick, Steph from Stupid Easy Paleo and a bunch of other top notch types wasn’t enough, our Culinary Adventure just happened to coincide with the incredible Yi Peng Lantern Festival.

Full moon & lantern | When in Chiang Mai: Yi Peng Lantern Festival | lizniland.com

I’d heard of the festival before (mainly because of this video) but I was totally unprepared for how moving & downright bloody amazing it would be to participate in it.

Chiang Mai city lights | When in Chiang Mai: Yi Peng Lantern Festival | lizniland.com

My photographs of the event don’t do it justice at all and I’m actually happy about that: it really is something that needs to be experienced and felt, not just seen.

Lantern | When in Chiang Mai: Yi Peng Lantern Festival | lizniland.com

I loved being down near the river watching people prepare their lanterns for launching into the night sky. In the crowds, couples young and old, groups of travelling friends and local families alike gathered around to cast their intentions for the coming year & let their worries float away with their glowing paper tube.

Sea of lanterns | When in Chiang Mai: Yi Peng Lantern Festival | lizniland.com

The Buddhist lantern festival in Chiang Mai usually coincides with Loi Krathong, a festival which occurs throughout Thailand and involves the floating of colourful floral arrangements down the river. Combined, these events make Chiang Mai an incredibly vibrant place to be at this time of year!

Loi Krathong | When in Chiang Mai: Yi Peng Lantern Festival | lizniland.com

City lights | When in Chiang Mai: Yi Peng Lantern Festival | lizniland.com

Parades, fireworks (both official & otherwise!), parties, a beauty pageant and street markets galore are spread throughout the city making it impossible to hide from the joy of it all.

Street markets | When in Chiang Mai: Yi Peng Lantern Festival | lizniland.com

Street markets (black & white) | When in Chiang Mai: Yi Peng Lantern Festival | lizniland.com

If you ever have the opportunity to participate in the Yi Peng Lantern Festival, I highly recommend you make sure it happens. It is, without a doubt, one of the most incredible things I’ve ever experienced.

Fireworks off the bridge | When in Chiang Mai: Yi Peng Lantern Festival | lizniland.com

Girls with candles | When in Chiang Mai: Yi Peng Lantern Festival | lizniland.com

Fireworks off the bridge view | When in Chiang Mai: Yi Peng Lantern Festival | lizniland.com

Here’s a little video of us sending off our lantern. Unfortunately the couple trying to do likewise next to us don’t have quite as much success…

Have you ever experienced the Yi Peng Lantern Festival? Have you ever participated in anything that unexpectedly blew your mind or overwhelmed your senses?

Chiang Mai: Culinary Adventures

A well-timed post on Stupid Easy Paleo while I was in a grumpy I-haven’t-been-overseas-for-years mood, saw me, along with Michael and my mate Jess, join Paleo Nick, Steph from Stupid Easy Paleo & a bunch of other new friends, on a Culinary Adventure in Chiang Mai.

I wouldn’t describe myself as a particularly spontaneous type but alas, around 6 weeks after I read that post, we had our bags packed and were en route to the airport. Sometimes things just feel right & you just gotta roll with it, however wild it might seem!

On the plane | Chiang Mai: Culinary Adventures | lizniland.com

Getting to Chiang Mai took around 10 hours flying time from Sydney: we flew to Bangkok (9 hours) and then hung out in the airport briefly before continuing on with a short flight (1 hour) into Chiang Mai. I picked up #GIRLBOSS to read on the plane, as well as The News by Alain de Botton & Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg.

Eco Resort Chiang Mai pool | Chiang Mai: Culinary Adventures | lizniland.com

We stayed at Eco Resort Chiang Mai which was delightful. It was a little way out of the main city but it had a really leafy setting, a deluxe pool and a pretty tasty breakfast buffet!

Eco Resort Chiang Mai | Chiang Mai: Culinary Adventures | lizniland.com

Each morning we had the option of waking up for a workout at Crossfit Chiang Mai. I only skipped one day & loved having my first taste of Crossfit, especially with athletes like Nick & Steph on hand for tips on lifts & activities I hadn’t really done before. I tried not to fan-girl out too hard when it came to meeting Steph… and I hope think I succeeded! Her blog has been a staple resource since I first tried my hand at paleo – more than a year ago – so it was cool putting an actual person to the name & face.

After posting last month during my macro-focused challenge about being ready to get back in the paleo saddle via Steph’s ebook, The Paleo Athlete, this trip was perfectly timed too – the 12 weeks finished last week. Hello again #paleolife!

Crossfit Chiang Mai | Chiang Mai: Culinary Adventures | lizniland.com

Of course being a paleo-focused group, food was never far from our minds! I’ve got a bunch of photos to show off my favourite Chiang Mai eats, the Thai cooking classes we did and all the delights from the markets. I’ll also be posting about the streets of Chiang Mai, the conveniently timed Yi Peng Lantern Festival and our elephant park and ziplining adventures.

Update: Jesse Kahle, the strapping gent on the far left of the photo above, is a superbly talented videographer. His camera rarely left his eye and we are all so lucky to have the below video to capture the spirit of the amazing trip.

To Be Found from Jesse Kahle on Vimeo.

Thanks to all the Culinary Ninjas for a fabulous adventure. What a fantastic crew of individuals! Here we all are, as snapped by our official group photographer, Anderson York (who therefore, was unfortunately not in the photo).

Culinary Ninjas | Chiang Mai: Culinary Adventures | lizniland.com

Have you been to Thailand? Chiang Mai is the only part of the country I’ve explored (12 hours in Bangkok Airport doesn’t count as far as I’m concerned!) and I really enjoyed it.

Life lately: Measuring macros

Strong-woman

When I discovered paleo a little over a year ago, I excitedly swore off rice crackers, low-fat yogurt and calorie counting and had never felt better. In the last few months though, I’d been considering doing a Whole 30, sugar detox, or some other reset program to recalibrate and rediscover that sense of inside-and-out wellness.

As it often does, the universe was listening in and by September 1, I was roped in for a 12 week challenge at my gym, Gritshed. With a focus on bodybuilding-style nutrition, the program involves a 4-week metabolism-boosting period, 4 weeks of gradual carb reduction and then a final 4 weeks of carb cycling.

I’m just starting week 7 now and while I’ve been encouraged to eat some less paleo-friendly characters like brown rice, oats and a couple of supplements, I’m lifting heavier, gaining muscle and dropping body fat all while never feeling hungry. Bit of a win! I’ve always been curious about macros and I’m always willing to try something new for the sake of an experiment.

Things I’ve learnt so far:

  • Carbs post-workout are important for recovery – it’s not just about the protein
  • How many calories I need to eat to keep on keeping on
  • Eggs are far better when they still have a yolk
  • Counting calories and staying on top of your macros takes a lot of time
  • How much protein/carbs/fat are in the foods I regularly eat
  • Bodybuilders have to eat a lot. A LOT.
  • Approximate grams to portion sizes of different foods
  • I can survive without chocolate and hot chips for weeks at a time (sometimes it’s good to be reminded of that)

All that said though, it hasn’t taken me long to be over lean turkey mince and egg whites and craving roasted chicken thighs and homemade mayo! I’m looking forward to closing out Week 12 so I can start following Steph’s teachings in my recently purchased e-book, The Paleo Athlete.

Photo credit: kReEsTaL via photopin cc

Quick wins for a better life #1: Hold out for lunch

#1: Hold out for lunch | Quick win for a better life| lizniland.com

Original photo by By Rayi Christian W

It’s 11.15am. You had a good breakfast, even downed a coffee an hour or two ago, but now you’re hungry. Legit hungry. Hungry like that fruit bowl/emergency nut stash/co-worker’s lolly jar is not looking like it will survive much longer.

Thing is though, lunch is coming. You know you only need to hold out for another hour and you can chow down on your beautifully balanced, nourishing lunch.

Can you wait? Can you make a cup of tea or refill your water bottle and just hold off eating until lunchtime?

Of course you can.

You might not want to believe it, but you can. If you can keep doing continuous power cleans until the bell, if you can keep running until you reach the end of the street, if you can keep nodding and smiling through that horribly awkward dinner date; you can wait another hour for lunch.

It’s that well-known battle of mind over matter. With our instant gratification culture, we’re always wanting more before we’re done with what we’ve got. Yeah you could scarf a handful of nuts (healthy fats right?) or get a treat from the fundraising box (it’s helping the children, afterall!) but really, what’s another hour?

Stick to your plan.

Sarah Wilson does good words on why unnecessary snacking is bad news for both body and mind. She refers to it as “pre-eating” saying:

“…it could have a lot to do with being scared of restraint and lack. Many of us fear that feeling of missing out and the feeling of ’emptiness’, for a whole quagmire of really messy reasons. We shove food down on top of hunger, hoping it will silence all other emptiness or flutteriness we might be feeling.”

If you’re ravenous all the time though, that might be another story. Steph from Stupid Easy Paleo has great tips for making sure your diet is doing its part of the deal.

This week I’m working hard to actually be hungry when I show up to my meals. I’m making sure I’m hydrating adequately and checking in with myself to make sure I’m really hungry (& not just stressed or bored). It also gives me an incentive to put more effort into making sure my meals are worth the wait.

Are you a snacker? Or do you prefer to stick to three solid meals. I used to graze constantly but since moving to a paleo eating template and upping my protein & fat intake a bit, my blood sugar seems to have really evened out which helps me avoid the dreaded hangries.

Darwin must-do: Humpty Doo Hotel & Jumping Crocodiles

For me, no trip to Darwin was going to be complete without seeing a crocodile in as close to its natural habitat as possible. To achieve this, our local friends recommended we hit up a Jumping Crocodile Cruise and work in a stop off at the historic Humpty Doo Hotel along the way.

We left just enough time to pull into the iconic pub on the way out to the cruise. This was where we squeezed in that delicious lunch of croc, buffalo and barra burgers.

Humpty Doo Hotel Darwin | Darwin must-do | lizniland.com

Sure, the dog races were on the flatscreen TVs and they’re happy to take Eftpos for your lunch payment but you won’t leave feeling like you’ve missed out on some original 70s charm – the pub’s been standing its ground since 1971, even withstanding the destruction of Cyclone Tracy in 1974.

Water | Jumping Crocodile Cruise Darwin | Darwin must-do | lizniland.com

After scarfing our lunch and taking some photos, we got back on the Arnhem Highway and headed out to the Adelaide River to find us some crocodiles. While I’ve seen crocodiles at various zoos and the like, seeing one swimming along in the river or lazing on the bank is (thankfully) not an experience I’ve had. And wow, there were crocs aplenty here!

Teeth! Jumping Crocodile Cruise Darwin | Darwin must-do | lizniland.com

The boat we were on was a comfortable, yet still close-enough-to-the-action, size and it was easy to see the creatures sunning themselves or nosing up to the boat to peruse their lunch. The crew narrate the trip, talking about each of the crocs by name and giving some history and facts about crocodiles in the waters of the Northern Territory.

Chomp | Jumping Crocodile Cruise Darwin | Darwin must-do | lizniland.com

As the crocodiles jump to grab the steak-y offerings, you can see how enormous and powerful these animals are. According to the crew’s fun facts, the halfway point on a crocodile is its back legs. In other words, it has a whopper of a tail which helps give it power jumping up out of the water. So that means that only one quarter of the toothy guy in the above snap is visible. Hearing this, its easy to understand how farm animals, pups and even unsuspecting people get taken so easily. Note to self: never camp near croc-infested waters!

Kites | Jumping Crocodile Cruise Darwin | Darwin must-do | lizniland.com

Towards the end of the trip, one of the crew members flung a handful of diced bait into the air, summoning pretty much an entire flock of kites. This was absolutely nuts! I flicked my camera to an auto sports mode and just rapid-fire clicked as birds swooped all around to try and collect a late lunch. This picture had no zoom on; we were literally inches from copping a bird to the face! So interesting to see such a major bird up close – well, at least in the photos anyway! They were flying around so fast it was hard to see much at the time.

Darwin really is fantastic for getting back to nature – even the kind of nature you don’t really want to get too close to!

Have you seen my other Darwin must-do adventures? We loved Litchfield National Park and Mindil Beach Markets for more hearty serves of what nature in the Top End has to offer.

Darwin must-do: Mindil Beach Markets

If you’re visiting Darwin in the dry season (& from what I hear about the wet season, you definitely should visit in the dry) a trip to Mindil Beach Markets is a non-negotiable.

Michael eating sun at Mindil Beach

As you can probably gather from the above photo, the big attraction here isn’t necessarily the markets. While the sprawling collection of (mostly food) stalls is hard to beat, they’re merely there to fill your belly while you wait for the real show.

Mindil Beach Markets laksa

The markets are held on Thursday & Sunday evenings with hoards of locals and tourists alike hitting the beach from around 5pm onwards. We spread out a tarp between families building sandcastles and tucked into a ripping good laksa (which you may recall from my Week of Eats Darwin round up) and a few cheeky rice paper rolls.

Friends at Mindil Beach

It’s a reasonably long beach so as long as you get there early enough, there’s plenty of room to spend the afternoon relaxed with friends and family, regardless of how many kids are flicking sand about. Tip: Don’t forget your sunnies! Otherwise you’ll have stinging retinas until sundown.

The crowd at Mindil Beach

I took so many photos as the sun was setting – it was tough culling a handful down to put in this post! Watching the sun set over the water is probably the most magical thing about Darwin.

sunset at Mindil Beach

You don’t realise how different it is to our east coast sunsets until you’re sitting there watching the fire in the sky gradually slide into the ocean.

sunset1 at Mindil Beach

With the tide all the way out, there were some amazing photo opportunities and I certainly wasn’t the only one lining up my camera on the sand! For any DSLR camera users, the settings that I found gave the best results for the sunset were shutter speed of 1/15 (this was when it was on the tail end of the sunset), aperture of  f/16 and an ISO of 100. The only photoshopping the above image received was to shrink it down to size – things don’t really get more photogenic than that!

Michael & Liz at Mindil Beach

Darwin really gave us so many back-to-nature experiences (check out our Litchfield National Park trip) and this was definitely the most impressive sunset I’ve ever seen.

Have you witnessed a Darwin sunset? What’s you tip for best ever sunset?

Darwin must-do: Litchfield National Park

On our recent trip to Darwin, we had 5 nights (one of which involved a mate’s wedding) to see as much of the Top End as possible. I’m going to break the bite-sized must-dos down and cover them off in this series.

To kick things off, meet Litchfield National Park.

http://lizniland.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/FlorenceBuley2_text.jpg

We only got to see a handful of the hotspots at the park but wow, well worth the extra kilometres on the hire car! If you, like us, only have a couple of days of sightseeing available and can’t make it to Kakadu, Litchfield is just the ticket to really feel like you’re seeing nature in all its glory.

The first tourist stop on the Litchfield run is the Magnetic Termite Mounds. I’m not going to lie to you: it’s both cool & lame at the same time. We agreed that if we were 7-year-old dinosaur enthusiasts, we’d be loving it.

Magnetic termite mounds darwin

This whole area looks eerily like a cemetery. Worth stopping to check out for a few quick snaps & a marvel at #insectlyf.

Now for the super awesome stuff that will make you feel like you’re really in NT.

Florence Falls Darwin

This photo just doesn’t do it justice. Florence Falls is a stunning waterfall which some crazy German tourist dived off the top of while we were there. Unlike most of the other bodies of water in and around Darwin, the swimming hole at the bottom of the waterfall is safe for young and old to paddle in.

Florence Falls swimming

If you want to feel like you’re in a Tourism Australia ad, swimming out towards the bottom of the falls is a must-do. Serious omg-how-good-is-life feelings to be had. Except when crazy tourists risk their lives. Then it’s unsettling. (He was fine, don’t worry!)

Michael Liz Litchfield Darwin

Hope this convinces you that a little Litchfield adventure is worth your time! We did this easily in a day (didn’t leave town til 11am and were home by 5pm) but you’ll need to BYO snacks and water. Wear your joggers & a hat but it’s not perilous terrain. A not-so-spritely Nan, those using a wheelchair or similar aid and anyone who can’t easily climb a decent set of stairs will most probably struggle to get down to the water hole but the rest of the sights we saw are fairly easily accessed via a walkway from the car park (which you won’t need a 4WD to get to).

Have you been to Litchfield? This was my favourite location on our trip – Florence Falls was magnificent.

 

How do you… Give a good birthday present?

It was my birthday last month. 28, no biggie. I was lucky enough to spend the vast majority of the weekend feasting at assorted eateries around town with family & friends.

While I’d never turn down a present, this year’s gifts were especially excellent. Personal, thoughtful and fun, there’s too many lessons to be had to not share some of my spoils!

Lesson #1: Think vintage

Vintage gear isn’t everyone’s jam but there’s a lot to be said for a gift that’s a one-of-a-kind with a story to tell.

From my grandmother, I got this Whiting & Davis Co purse. Still in its original box with tissue paper stuffing and all, she wasn’t sure if I’d like it but thought she’d pass it along anyway. When I called her to thank her and find out more about it, she told me she hardly used it for fear of wrecking it. She spotted it in a shop window back in the 1960s and knew she had to have it. She said my grandfather was happy to buy it for her but she wanted to pay for it herself – she wanted it to be all hers. “I bought it with my own money; it was a big deal back then.”

Vintage bag

Lesson #2: Get creative with presentation

Why always settle on a boring old giftbag? Pimp your pressie with fun packaging!

Groping through the giftwrap, it seemed my mates Lee & Meg had gifted me a DVD. A well-known non-watcher of DVDs, I was a bit weirded out at first: what DVD did they actually think I would sit down to watch? Once I unwrapped Men Seeking Women, which I’m sure is a cinematic masterpiece, my reaction fooled no one. “Ohh… Thanks. I haven’t seen this one.” (Wow I thought these people knew me!)

Once they recovered from their fits of laughter, they instructed me to open the case – the disc had been replaced with a necklace. They do know me!

DVD case as wrapping

Lesson #3: Flex your cooking muscles

Presents don’t need to be fancy or pricey – fun and personal will always go down a treat!

My life-long best friend’s little sister personalised a big disc of gingerbread for me – how good is that! Another friend also baked for me: she made cakes to share with our colleagues on the morning of my birthday at work. Nothing beats a wedge (or two! I was the b’day girl, after all) of gluten-free dark chocolate delciousness. Birthday calories don’t count, right?

Gingerbread birthday

Lesson #4: Think functional art

Sure, your mate might have salt & pepper grinders, but, are they worthy of life out & proud as an eye-catching sculpture?

I have to say, I’ve scored big time on a mother-in-law that knows how give good presents! That fluro orange ball below is the knob with which I now grind my pepper, and the little guy to his right houses my himalayan pink salt crystals. To steal her present idea completely, they’re the Tom Dixon Tower Salt & Pepper Grinders. Here’s a tip: my mother-in-law occasionally peruses my Pinterest boards – it’s a pretty good way to get more insight into your giftee’s tastes!

Eclectic grinders and picnic set

Lesson #5: Create experiences

Take one basic picnic basket. Pack it with delectable treats you know your giftee will love.

My aforementioned bestie created this (above right) beautiful present for me this year. A bottle of red, a jar of stuffed olives, crackers & a block of this totally delicious chocolate made for a delightfully personalised present, let alone when they were packaged up in this super cute picnic port. We haven’t taken it picnicking yet but we’ve certainly sampled the wine & chocolate already with great results.

So tell us…

What are the best presents you’ve received? Or, have you given a present that went down really well?

How do you… throw an engagement party?

Engagement parties, like weddings, are one of those events that everyone has an opinion on. I’m not engaged but it still doesn’t stop me being asked what I’ll do when the time comes.

You’ve probably been to plenty of such functions & I’m sure you have a pretty good idea of what you liked and what you would’ve improved! While you should obviously go for the option that best reflects you & your partner, there’s so much that goes into putting it all together that it’s worth doing a bit of research.

Do you have an all-in affair or do you just do a backyard barbecue with friends? Do you do speeches? And, do you really have to invite your Mum’s third cousin Bertha that you apparently once met, age 4?

I thought I’d grill a mate of mine Lee Isherwood (graphic designer & the bird behind Bluebirdmill) to get the behind the scenes scoop on her recent engagement party.

Us with the happy couple

Us with the happy couple

Being the wonderfully creative type she is, Lee quickly found a hall to hire, locked in a Mexican theme for the evening and then got to planning the important stuff – the decorations!

“I love decorations,” Lee gushes. “My favourite place to look for ideas was Pinterest. I allocated a decent budget for decorations but I shopped around to get the best price so I didn’t blow it all on a handful of things.”

“I also had a few friends & family members get in on some DIY projects too.”

The card-eating pinata was a definite decoration win!

The card-eating pinata was a definite decoration win!

Budgeting is always the elephant in the room with anything wedding-related. The optimal price range varies for everyone & how much you spend on each component of your night will always depend on your priorities. Be sure to think through what matters most to you & your partner & allocate your funds accordingly.

While Lee & her partner had chosen a budget for the party, the addition of catering pushed them beyond what they originally wanted to spend overall, let alone on feeding everyone.

“While we really wanted to stick to our budget, we decided to book a caterer to minimise stress on the night,” Lee said. “We also organised a couple of friends to make some Mexican-themed nibbles to go around before the catering was to start.”

“For the catering, we opted for canapé style food which, while it was tasty, I probably wouldn’t choose if I had to do it all again.”

“I spoke to a few people after the night & although they all enjoyed the food, some people just didn’t get enough of it.”

Lee found a picture of this cake on Pinterest & her sister-in-law had it made as our present.

Lee found a picture of this cake on Pinterest & her sister-in-law had it made as our present.

It can be tempting to try & do everything yourself but, when it comes to your engagement party, it just isn’t worth missing out on sitting back & actually enjoying yourself.

Lee said the most special part of the evening was seeing all the family & friends who had travelled to share the event with her & her partner.

“Most of my partner’s family live a few hours away & we have friends interstate so it was lovely they were all able to join us,” she said. “I really felt like it was important for me to focus on having a great night, no matter what, as everyone was there because they love me & my partner.”

“Keeping in mind that everyone was there to celebrate our love for each other also helped me not sweat the small things!”

Stunning bride-to-be Lee & her proud mum

Stunning bride-to-be Lee & her proud mum

Lee said she definitely couldn’t have done it all on her own & greatly appreciated all the help she got from her friends and family.

“My mum and dad were absolutely amazing,” Lee said. “They got up super early & spent the entire day setting up & then spent most of the night running around making sure everything was running smoothly.”

“Other friends made food & decorations, lent cars to transport the ice & booze, & my high school best friend even hit the early morning markets in Sydney to fill the hall with dozens of flowers.”

“If you’re planning an engagement party, I’d recommend getting over any fears you might have about asking for help!”

Lee's friend hit the early morning flower markets to decorate the hall with fresh blooms.

Lee’s friend hit the early morning flower markets to decorate the hall with fresh blooms.

As a reveller that had a fantastic time, I’d have to say Lee’s function was a success! Planning is obviously a big part of the night but I loved Lee’s sentiment that it’s so important to take the time to share the night with your family & friends.

Preparation is the key, as well as having a great support crew – having some trusted friends and family you can rely on to handle any problems during the party will help diffuse your stress levels & keep you smiling throughout.